There’s nothing worse than environmentalists encouraging climate inaction
One of my bugbears is the constant attempts to shift the ‘blame’ for climate change to someone else – whether it is China, Big Business or the Super-Rich. Take this quote from yesterday’s Guardian:
This is not just another exercise in comparing individual carbon usage – the cunning ruse that was promoted by the oil firm BP almost 20 years ago. Concerned about the damage being done to its corporate reputation by the climate crisis, BP hired a public relations firm to bolster its image. One of the most effective strategies that emerged was the launch in 2004 of a carbon footprint calculator, which encouraged consumers to bear responsibility for their greenhouse gas emissions, instead of the producers who were making trillions from pumping oil and gas out of the ground, advertising to boost sales, and lobbying to delay emissions reductions.
This portrays the poor consumer as a hapless pawn in the climate debate, but I think the logic is fatally flawed. If consumers accept responsibility for their carbon footprint (which I believe we should) then reducing that footprint will reduce demand for BP’s products, so if the footprint concept was simply PR fluff, it will backfire horribly (there’s also the point that the carbon footprint is a subset of the ecological footprint concept developed years earlier by academics without any finger-pointing, but anyway…).
Our economy works on the two-way interaction between production and consumption. If you say to the consumer, it’s not your fault, it’s the producers’, then you are helping to lock in a high carbon trajectory for years to come. If you say “our sector/country only represents 2% (or whatever) of global emissions”, you are doing the same. If you are saying “Look at Elon Musk flying around the world in a private jet while we are being asked to cycle to work.”, then likewise. Carbon emissions accumulate in the atmosphere, so any delay and/or inaction is not climate-neutral, it is actively making things worse.
Yes, statistically, the actions of one average individual do not make a significant difference to global temperatures. But individual actions by 8bn will (and actions taken by affluent Guardian readers – like me – will make much more difference than average). More importantly individual action influences others – I was one of a few in my street who did kerbside recycling when it was first introduced, but it steadily increased until now everybody does it. If you install solar panels or a heat pump, it helps reduce the cost of future systems to encourage others to do likewise. If you buy an electric car, it increases the pressure on local authorities to install EV charging points and reduces the fear of the new amongst others. If you cycle, it encourages others to cycle and authorities to install more cycle facilities which opens up cycling to others again. I’ve given test rides of my e-cargobike to several different people who have gone on to buy one – with more still mulling on it (btw: e-bike technology has cut four times more emissions than EV cars). I wouldn’t have known the e-cargobike was an option for me if I hadn’t seen others using them.
At all stratas of society we have to act. As a consumer, every pound/dollar/euro we spend sends a message to the market. As a citizen, every green action we take demonstrates and alternative to our friends and neighbours. As an employee, questioning business as usual can have a ripple effect through the organisation (and suppliers, competitors and other parts of the business ecosystem). We need to stop making excuses and be the change we wish to see.